What traits make for a good product manager? How can a graduate get into an entry-level PM job or an experienced professional use their skills to transition into product? Our guest in our recent #AskMeAnything live chat on Slack has the answers to all these questions and more! Read on for his insights…
Chris Basiliere has been a Manager for Online Product Management at The Home Depot since 2015. Before transitioning into Product, he held a range of roles in Project Management, Finance, Operations and Sales at McMaster-Carr, bringing a wealth of experience and holistic perspective to his product role. He has a BSc in Industrial and Systems Engineering and an MBA. He’s super active in Atlanta’s thriving start-up community and in his down time, he’s into music production!
What traits, skills or habits do you think make a product manager particularly effective?
I believe that good product managers have the mind of an engineer, heart of an artist, and speech of a diplomat. Great product managers also have a growth mindset and are perpetually becoming better at each of these dimensions.
What do you mean by having the “mind of an engineer”? What characteristics about engineers do you think make this mindset particularly effective?
Engineers solve complex problems by systematically breaking them down into simple parts. They structure those parts as individual problem statements for which they follow the scientific method to develop hypotheses. They test those hypotheses and use data to drive their decisions. To an engineer, building a rocket is not a complex problem; rather, it’s a large collection of fundamentally simple problems. This mindset can be applied to complex customer problems just as aptly as it can to rockets!
What would it take at The Home Depot to take an idea from concept to market?
It’s no secret that Home Depot is a fairly large organization. Taking an idea to market is a war waged on two fronts: (1) ground-up business case development using VOC data from those who are closest to the customer and (2) generating buy-in at the top to champion the effort. Master those two and it’s easy for them to meet in the middle.
What A/B testing tool does The Home Depot use, or have you rolled your own?
We primarily use Adobe Target. It’s a very powerful tool for testing on the web. Truth be told, nobody has really mastered the A/B testing process for native apps. #WantToStartACompany?
Imagine you’re training your substitute for your current position. What do you expect that person to learn or avoid?
I would advise that person to develop the credibility they need to influence without authority. Product managers are accountable for everything but responsible for nothing. Only by influencing others do we get value to market. Know your product, know your customers, know your team, and know your business.
Is an entry-level PM targeting the software industry required to learn UX or development languages? Or are the organization, process and management skills more important to learn?
I don’t think this is required to break into the field. Certainly, it will help you build credibility to understand the frameworks, tools, and languages of your dev and UX partners. If you don’t have specific technical experience, think about what in your background you can use as a pivot point. For example, one of my favorite product managers spent a lot of time working in brick and mortar retail and knows our customers’ needs and pain points through and through.
Users are the most important – they guide our efforts and validate the results. What strategies do you use to validate efforts before being developed, in order to select those that are more worthy?
That’s spot on. One strategy I find particularly useful at The Home Depot when I want to vet ideas and solutions with customers, I put on my orange apron and walk into one of our stores. There’s no better way to get close to your customer than to tag along for their journey in real life. This is a great opportunity to put new experiences in front of them (even just prototypes or comps) and see how they hold up in the wild.
If your resume came across my desk with a marketing background, you’d get my attention with or without a specific PM credential. The mindset of a marketer and a product manager already have quite a bit of overlap. Really, it’s all about relationships. Leverage your network to stand out from the sea of applicants. If someone is willing to go to bat for a person and recommend that I hire them, that’s worth more to me than any certificate.
Can you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by that?
Challenge accepted. As a hiring manager, here’s how I think about it. If someone whose opinion I trust recommends a candidate to me, that automatically decreases the risk associated with hiring a candidate – they have just become more of a known quantity to me. Now, that doesn’t guarantee the job for sure. You have to interview well yourself. But if you do your homework and can think like a product manager and articulate how your past experiences have prepared you to be a good product manager (even if those experiences are not directly product management experiences), people from a variety of backgrounds can demonstrate their success potential.
Often, I find my team wondering how to prioritize different kinds of requests managing several stakeholders (e.g. data issues that seem like software bugs, small enhancements or large enhancements that could translate into projects, etc). How does one manage product priorities of different types in a large organization?
This is the toughest part of being a product manager – learning what opportunities to say “no” to and when. Passionate product managers want to move as fast as they can to bring all good ideas to market. (If only there were infinite time and budget, right?!) In a large organization, such as the one I find myself at, I try to balance near-term features that can deliver value immediately with larger strategic or enterprise initiatives that will pay dividends for years to come.
How do you differentiate between customer and product requirements? I work for an SME and a few of our larger clients desire 1-2 added functionalities – however, as PMs, isn’t our job to find solutions that meet the needs of a broad range of customers?
I’ll answer your question by first challenging it. Are you sure that you need to meet the needs for a broad range of customers? Often, when you try to solve for everyone, you optimize for no one. I’ll challenge you to define the “core customer” and focus on solving for them. Similarly/alternatively, define personas for customers who engage with your product. How would you solve for their needs differently? Do those differences present an opportunity to personalize the experience?
I have a background in data integration and quality, working in project management and business analysis. I did some coding in the past, but not very well and it’s been a while since. I’m not familiar with statistics, SAS or R. How do I transition my experience to Product Management?
Build from your strengths. At the end of the day, product managers won’t deliver a single line of code or piece of creative. Instead, you’ll be influencing your partners to deliver their best work. With your background, you already have a leg up on most people – you know how systems and development works! Even if you don’t know a specific language, you know how to think algorithmic-ally.
As you look back at your career, what failure(s) did you learn the most from and how?
I was hoping someone would ask this question. My answer actually describes how I got into product management in the first place. A while back, I ran a start-up for a couple of years. My company used personalization in the e-commerce space to make it easy to delight customers in a category with low trial-ability. We folded after a couple years. (That’s the last time I enter a highly regulated market!) After two years though, I spent far less on the company than on my MBA and learned a whole lot more in the process. Being an entrepreneur helps you develop the same skills that make for a great product manager – getting close to your customers, being lean and agile, getting the most value out of the resources you have. This “failure” was the best education I ever received.
It seems like most companies posting job listings want specific product management experience, yet they don’t realize the field is one of the fastest-growing in the country. How can hiring managers be aware that the 5 years of experience they want is unrealistic for the candidate pool?
Unfortunately, this is true. If I’m going to be self-critical, I’d say that this is why there are roles in my organization that sit unfilled. You’re right, at the moment, demand > supply. Often, I think the challenge we have is teaching recruiters how to target competencies instead of experience. My advice – ignore the job postings and find ways to connect directly with the hiring manager. Try to avoid cold calling; instead leverage your network to get in the door.
Any final advice?
My parting advice and I’ve touched on this at a few points – IT’S ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS.